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“The best way out is always through.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Plump Up Your Pumpkins with Side Lighting

I was going to call this tip "Steal Someone Else's Pumpkins" because that is pretty much what I did to get this shot. While visiting a pick-you-own pumpkin farm in Connecticut (Pumpkinseed Hill in Shelton, Connecticut if you're looking for a great place to shoot on an autumn day), I was too busy photographing pumpkins and people picking them to pick any of my own. As I was wandering around shooting though, I kept seeing people pulling wagon loads full of bright orange pumpkins and was wishing I'd had time to do some picking of my own just so that I had a wagon load to photograph.

Then, as if fate heard my wishes, at the end of the day as the golden late-afternoon sun was glancing the top of the hill, a woman parked her wagon full of pumpkins in a beautiful pool of warm sunlight right in front of me. While she stepped a few feet away to choose a few last pumpkins with her kids, I "borrowed" her wagon and photographed it. I wanted to tell her what a nice job she'd done arranging them but she had an armload of kids in tow and before I could get the words out, off she and her wagon and kids went, oblivious to my artistic larceny.

The thing that I like about this shot (other than the very nice arrangement that my anonymous accomplice created) is that the side-lighting coming from the late rays of sun is giving the pumpkins a nice plump round feeling of volume and weight. Volume is an important visual element, particularly in still life photographs, because in addition to creating a three-dimensional reality, it also helps the brain to imagine the size and bulk of objects. Unlike shapes which just describe the outline of an object (remember, silhouettes excel at describing shapes and they have absolutely no sense of volume), volume provides heft--the plump in the pumpkins, in this case.

The key to revealing volume is using oblique lighting (from the side or the rear, usually) to enhance the three-dimensional appearance. If you want to experiment with this concept sometime, just take an apple and a desk lamp and at first just light the apple flatly from the front. While the color and even the shape of the apple will be realistic looking, you won't get any sense of its fullness. If you move the desk lamp to the extreme side and shoot another frame, you'll see that the shadow side is helping to define the roundness and girth of the apple. Voila! Instant volume.

You can (and should), of course, use this concept to help create volume and three-dimensionality in much larger objects like trees and houses or even mountains in a landscape. By waiting until the light is illuminating your subject from the side (or from the rear if you have a high-enough shooting angle to see both the highlight and shadow sides of the object) you heighten the reality of the scene. Sidelight also enhances texture--in this shot you can almost feel the rippled surface of the pumpkins--and texture also helps to enhance the sense of volume.

All of this goes to show that you just never know when stealing someone else's pumpkins will help you learn a valuable lesson in vision. If only my friends and I had thought of that excuse when we got caught stealing pumpkins when we were kids! "I did it for art's sake, dad!"


Anonymous said...

Hello Jeff,

My name is Leah I am from Japan. I just bought your book exposure Photo Worksshop (ordered from the US!). I want to ask you some phrases that I dont understand in that book, how can I contact you to ask about this?

I appreciate your reply thank you.


Frank said...

Hi Jeff,

This one reminded me of something I saw a couple of days ago. It was a bright, clear, crisp New England day and as I was driving by McHues, a local nursery, I saw a young couple with a small child, didn't look much more than a year old. They had the baby on a big fluffy blanket in front of some of the big pumpkins that the nursery had on display. She was engaging the baby's attention and he was snapping pictures with his camera. I thought it was a great way for an amateur to get a beautiful Fall background for his kid. Now here you are suggesting the same thing for a professional! :)

Great post, I appreciate it and it does give me some ideas.


Jeff Wignall said...

Hi Leah,

I emailed you directly so if you see this comment but not my email, just let me know and I'll try again.


Jeff Wignall said...

Hi Frank,

Thanks for the comment. It's funny, I actually find myself stopping in front of garden centers and snapping pictures of their displays in autumn. Some of them do a very creative job. In fact, there is one photo (of a scarecrow and some pumpkins) in my book "The Joy of Digital Photography" that I believe I shot in front of a nursery in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.

The farm where I shot the wagon (and that's really just a snapshot to make a teaching point) is just beautiful. It's a part of the Jones' Family Farm in Shelton, Connecticut and it sits on top of a very high hill with spectacular view of the surrounding hills. They also have an enormous Christmas-tree farm, so if anyone is looking for a place to shoot a family cutting down a Christmas tree, that's the place to go!

Here's their website: